Dialogue Mechanics – Part Two: Speaker Tags and Dialogue Beats

I heard the following story from a writing student: A teacher in a fourth grade class held a funeral for the word said. The students put the word in a coffin, threw flower petals on top, and chanted, “Said is dead. Don’t use said.” In other words, when using speaker tags (often called dialogue tags), like “Mary said” or “Lou said,” come up with a more creative verb, like chirped, or guffawed, or giggled.

Other writing students have told me of teachers who insist on always using said in tags. Said is invisible to readers, so anything else will stick out like a proverbial sore thumb.

Is it any wonder writing students get confused?

Here’s the deal. It’s true that said is usually invisible to readers. But it can also be a flashing siren if it’s used too often.


“Hello,” he said.

“Hi,” she said.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“To the store,” she said.


See what I mean? Repetition creates a sore thumb.

But what happens when you replace said?


“Hello,” he greeted.

“Hi,” she chirped.

“Where are you going?” he queried.

“To the store,” she rejoined.


Even worse, right?

Variation is the key to using tags that are invisible to the reader. I think said is the most invisible and should be your “go-to” tag, but it is better to employ dialogue beats and skip tags the majority of the time.


He stopped on the sidewalk and smiled. “Hello.”

“Hi.” She adjusted her purse and glanced at her shoes. Why had she worn these old things? Oh, please don’t notice!

He looked straight at her shoes. “Where are you going?”

“To the store.” He noticed! Heat rushed to her cheeks. I’m going to die right here and now.

 


This version has no tags. Although it is a silly sequence, you still know who is speaking without the need of tags. The dialogue beats, that is, the phrases that supply action and interior monologue, let the reader know who is speaking. They also add a bonus–readers can see what is going on and feel the emotion.

Notice that a beat can come before the spoken line or after it. Often a beat can come between two line spoken by the same person, as follows:

“I was wondering.” He touched his shoe to hers. “Looks like you’ve got a lot of miles on those. You must be a runner.”

The dialogue beat provides a natural pause between two spoken lines as well as a visual. Again, no speaker tag is needed. The writer chooses where to put the beat based on the flow of action versus when the words are spoken.

I advise using dialogue beats the majority of the time with a sprinkling of speaker tags to vary the structure. When people are not moving, I will use tags more often, especially if they are in a dark place and visual movement is impossible to see.

Also, tags are usually unnecessary when only two people are talking, especially when each character has a unique voice. (An example for those who have read my books: speaker tags are not necessary in a conversation between Walter and Professor Hamilton. Their style of speech always lets you know who is talking.)

In addition, using a substitute for said is fine if you do so infrequently. Sometimes my characters will growl or bark their words, but I use such alternatives sparingly so they will be more emphatic when they pop up. Also, a few other tags are nearly as invisible as said, such as asked, replied, and whispered, so I use them more often than other alternatives.

Some writers, in order to use said while giving it more pizzazz, will dress it up with an adverb.


“Yes,” she said happily. “I am a runner.”

“Cool,” he said shyly. “Do you … um … want to go for a run with me sometime?”


That’s not pizzazz. That’s dreck.

Avoid doing this. Instead, show happiness in a dialogue beat. Show shyness the same way. Let readers see and feel the emotion instead of slapping on an adverb to tell them the emotion.


She swallowed, barely able to keep a shout from bursting forth. “Yes. I’m a runner.”

“Cool.” He folded his hands at his back and averted his eyes. “Do you … um … want to go for a run with me sometime?”


One more point: don’t use impossible speaker tags:


“Sure,” she grinned. “How about tomorrow morning? I know a great course.”

“Perfect,” he smiled. “Seven?”


You can’t grin your words, and you can’t smile them. Stay far away from tags like these. I read one teacher who taught that you can’t laugh your words, but that’s not accurate. You can laugh a short phrase. Try it. But please don’t try sneezing your words. It doesn’t work.

If you have any questions of comments, please post them.

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15 replies

  1. Great tips! This is unrelated to the topic, but whenever I hear the song “Flawless” by Mercy Me it makes me think of Kelly Clark from Echoes from the Edge. 🙂

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  2. This is great advice! I’ve always gotten confused by this, so this helps out a lot.

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  3. Mr. Davis when you use a character tag does it matter if the character’s name is first and “said” is afterwards, or is it the opposite?

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  4. Mr. Davis this question has nothing to do with dialogue, so I hope you don’t mind. Would you recommend that a writer that’s a minor get a Facebook or Twitter account in order to advertise their book?

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  5. Do I just use a personal account?

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